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Photo by Patrick Colleran
Aug 12 2013

Scoring Trail Karma on the Continental Divide

A lifelong "taker" gives back to the trails he loves through MWA's CDT Montana program

Afoot on the CDT

While I don’t normally consider myself a selfish person, if someone made that charge against my recreationist persona — the part of me that likes to hike, backpack, fish and bike — then I would have a tough time denying it.

Without a doubt, when it comes to outdoor recreation, I am a taker.

Throughout my lifetime, I have hiked thousands of miles on trails from Alaska to California to Texas to Maine. Almost every weekend for the past five years I have walked, backpacked or skied on one kind of trail or another, yet I have enjoyed these trails without fully appreciating how fortunate I am to amble through the woods, chill my feet in rushing mountain streams, fish in high alpine lakes, and breath cool, crisp mountain air. All of this has been possible because people have dedicated innumerable hours of sweat and toil to building and maintaining thousands of miles of trail that allow me to access these experiences.

At times, I have considered doing trail work, and I even applied for a few jobs here and there. But all my good intentions had so far produced zero tangible results, and frankly, the guilt was beginning to eat at me. My trail karma was in need of replenishment. So, two weeks ago, I signed up with the Montana Wilderness Association’s Continental Divide Trail (CDT) program and began my new life as a giver.

For the past two years, the CDT Montana program has helped thru-hikers, weekenders and day hikers enjoy the “King of Trails” as it winds through Montana for 960 miles of 3,100 total miles between Canada and Mexico. Prior to 2011, the Continental Divide Trail Association bore the responsibility for maintaining these miles, but when it folded, the Montana Wilderness Association happily stepped up. Since then, MWA’s CDT Montana program has not missed a beat and continues to recruit more than a hundred volunteers each summer.

For twelve weeks throughout the summer and fall, CDT Montana takes volunteers from Yellowstone to Glacier and points in between to build and maintain this epic trail. It provides breakfast, lunch and dinner, and all it asks in return is their hard work. For my trip, we were headed into the Centennials, a dry, rolling mountain range on the Montana-Idaho border.

I caught a ride from Missoula with Dylan Barbash, one of the CDT Montana crew leaders and Chance, a sixteen year old volunteer from rural Missouri. This was Chance’s second year volunteering with CDT Montana and I was impressed that a teenager was willing to fly out to Montana to spend the summer away from his friends. According to Chance, he “simply wanted to see Montana,” and this program gave him the opportunity. He had never seen Montana, but was willing to donate his hard work to the trail and was already planning to return for a third season next year.

Another volunteer, Mark, was a retired biology teacher from Thompson Falls, Mont. who had spent many summers working for the U.S. Forest Service. This was his twelth trip with CDT Montana and his experience was greatly appreciated by crew members and leaders alike. Eric was originally from New Jersey, but had moved to California to work in the tech industry. He recently quit his job and is traveling around the West for the summer. He, too, had never seen Montana, but the project added structure to his epic journey, and like me, he looked forward to giving back. Mary was our camp cook, and like all camp cooks I imagine, she was a bit eccentric. At one point in her life, she had taught linguistics in Norway on a Fulbright Scholarship, but more recently had worked as a trucker out of Choteau, Mont. on Montana’s windswept Rocky Mountain Front.

Rounding out our crew was our leader, Meg Killen. This is Meg’s fourth year building trail on the CDT and although she has worked other trail jobs over the years, she prefers the experience of working with volunteers through CDT Montana. “On a normal crew, it’s just a heads down approach,” she says. “With volunteers it’s different. At the beginning of the week, everyone is strangers, but by the end you have formed bonds.” And for Meg, this is what being outdoors is all about. Moreover, Meg thrives on the feeling that she’s part of something much bigger than just one project; she’s helping to complete the Continental Divide Trail.

Over the five-day trip, we cleared trees, re-routed trail, built water bars, dug tread and cut more brush than I care to remember. I worked hard, harder than I have in a long time. I couldn’t wait to take off my boots each night and when I did I was able to kick back around the campfire savoring the knowledge that thousands of hikers would benefit from my efforts.

And Meg was right; by week’s end our diverse group came together. We had all arrived at the beginning of the week with different motivations and unique goals, but we worked together, sweated together and even bled a little bit together. When we broke camp and pulled out of the trailhead parking lot on that last day, I felt myself lingering, wanting that bond to last a little longer.

For me, hiking is about community and hard work as much as getting away from the rush of everyday life. CDT Montana delivers the perfect mix of these ingredients. I now know what goes into building and maintaining the trails that I cherish and depend on, and while my trail karma is probably still deep in the red, I feel better having given back to the trails that have given me so much.

For anyone interested in giving back to the trail, CDT Montana still has several trips left this summer and fall. They are filling up quickly, so if you want to volunteer check out the CDT Montana program page.

Michael Dax recently completed his masters degree in history at the University of Montana.  He is an occasional contributer to High Country News and other publications.  He's also an active volunteer with the Montana Wilderness Association in Missoula, MT.